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How the Celtics are using the post up game with Jared Sullinger

Gone are the days when you could throw the ball down to McHale or Bird and have them create from the low post. In today's NBA and certainly in Brad Stevens' system, bigs like Jared Sullinger have become stretch 4's and 5's, but occasionally, they'll find themselves in the paint.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Before last Friday's game in Toronto, Brad Stevens talked about his approach to getting his big men in the low post, a park-it-in-the-paint strategy that Sean would love for the team to adopt.:

Stevens really needs to be commended with how candid he is with these questions.  I can't think of another coach in the league that would reply to a pointed question about his approach to the NBA game with such a thoughtful and analytical answer.  For what it's worth, he's right: post-ups aren't exactly the most efficient scoring plays in the league.  According to Synergy Sports by way of Rotoworld's Ryan Knaus, post-ups average 0.86 points per possession.  That's marginally better than isolations (0.84 PPP) and ball handlers in a pick and roll (0.79 PPP).

But it's not as if Stevens won't use the post up.  He did say he'd utilize an "appropriate mix."  In fact last year, in a Q & A with Zach Lowe, the Celtics lead the league in post ups at the time and Stevens loved using it to generate offense.  He said:

I mean, you're near the top of the league in total post-ups.

And [Brandon] Bass is posting up three times as much as he has in the past. At the end of the day, we have to use all of our strengths.

Analytics folks say the post-up, or at least a post-up shot, is a low-efficiency play. But there's a way to reconcile that, right?

There are two ways to get inside-out: driving or posting.

In other words: The post-up is more a vehicle for passing and other shots, rather than necessarily for a post-up shot itself?

It's a vehicle for playing inside-out. That's right.

First of all, BRANDON BASS, MR. MID RANGE, WAS POSTING UP 3X AS MUCH AS NORMAL LAST YEAR?!  It sounds crazy, but Stevens did qualify his answer by saying that "it's a vehicle for playing inside-out."  Even though Bass isn't exactly Kevin McHale on the low block, his sheer strength and bulk would force teams to send a second defender and open up the floor for cutters and shooters.

This season, Boston's starting bigs, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, have been very successful on the perimeter, shooting a combined 14 out of 23 from behind the line.  However, they have pounded the paint "appropriately."  In four preseason games, they've faced the Sixers, Knicks, and Raptors and a variety of defensive front courts (unfortunately, the page did not have video available against Philadelphia and Nerlens Noel).

In Boston's first game against New York, Sullinger drew a difficult match up against the length of Samuel Dalembert, but still found angles to attack the shot blocker.  This is a great set from Stevens and Sullinger.  With Dalembert concentrating on the strong side dribble hand off between Olynyk and Evan Turner, Sully sneakily carves out space and creates a passing lane for ET to hit him with Dalembert on his back.  Had Sullinger just tried to bully ball him and back down, it would have been difficult to get a shot over Dalembert, but with the motion offense in full effect and the ball rotating quickly, it gives Sullinger a chance to immediately get a shot off right when the ball gets to him.

Sullinger Post 3

On this next play, the final result is a strict back in by Sullinger but note a few things: 1) Turner back screens Dalembert in the hopes that Carmelo Anthony and Dalembert might switch the pick and create a size match up in Sully's favor and 2) when Sullinger receives the ball, he faces up and takes Dalembert off the dribble and spin.  Sully doesn't exactly have a killer crossover, but by facing him up, he's more a threat to pass or shoot rather than iso'ing and backing down.

Sullinger Post 4

With the game in hand, Derek Fisher decided to give Travis Wear some run at the 4 and Sully just punishes him with his size.  This kind of mismatch will be rare, but if Sullinger has a size advantage, he'll take it.

Sullinger Post 5

In the second game against the Knicks, Sullinger found himself in another mismatch with Quincy Acy and opted for a spin fall away.  I'm guessing this is the kind of shot that Stevens wants to avoid.

Sullinger Post 1

A similar set to that second GIF.  Here, it's Marcus Thorton setting a back screen on Amare Stoudemire.  Tim Hardaway Jr. picks him up briefly on the switch and by the time Stoudemire has time to recover, Sullinger's already established position on the low block, catches the ball cleanly, and calmly hits the jump hook over Stat.

Sullinger Post 2

The Raptors proved to be a more difficult match up for Sullinger and Olynyk.  Because of Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas' length, Boston didn't try to find Sully on the block but ran a lot of pick and rolls where he'd catch the ball fifteen feet from the rim.  Generally, we think of the screener's path after a pick and roll to be a straight line to the rim (like in the first GIF), but Stevens and Sullinger have used PnR's to give Sully a chance to hit back-peddling defenders with spin moves to neutralize their size.

Sullinger Pick And Roll 2

Sullinger Pick And Roll 1

Sullinger Pick And Roll Assist

The Celtics face the Raptors again on Wednesday and I'd expect more of the same.  Although Sullinger appears to be the prototypical back-it-down-back-it-down power forward, his improved conditioning and Stevens' new motion offense makes him more of a threat off the ball and further away from the basket.  Think of Sully as a wrecking ball: the farther away you swing it from, the more damage it's going to do.

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